Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dim Sum at Empire Garden

Waking up this morning thinking about what I wanted to eat I immediately thought it would be worth the trip to trek into Chinatown for some Dim Sum. For whatever reason almost every time I've done so it has been a rainy day, so perhaps that's what made me think of it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Dim sum is the name for a subset of Chinese cuisine involving a wide range of small dishes served alongside Chinese tea. It is usually served in the mornings at Chinese Restaurants and hence makes for a perfect brunch when you're in the mood for something less run of the mill.

When going in Boston I almost always head to Empire Garden in Chinatown. Formerly an old theatre, the dining room is huge and traditionally decorated with Chinese art and artifacts. Diners sit at tables all throughout as servers come through pushing carts of the various delicacies. Instead of placing an order, you simply stop the cart as it comes by, see if there's anything you like, and you get your food right there. The server then stamps your card in one of three price categories and continues on his or her way. Then comes the next cart with a whole new set of food, and so continues the process.

Gow, or dumplings, are perhaps the most well-known of typical dim sum dishes, and are simply are made of a variety of ingredients wrapped in a translucent rice flour or wheat starch skin. My favorite are the shrimp, or har, gow, with really flavorful chunks of shrimp inside the wrapping. While some find the somewhat slimy yet sticky texture of the skin a bit much, I think it is wonderful.

Lo Mai Gai, or lotus leaf rice, is another great dish. Glutinous rice is mixed with a variety of meats, egg, and other delicious things and steamed inside lotus leaves. Be careful not to eat too much of this or you might not have room for anything else, as it is quite filling. The more adventurous might opt for the Phoenix talons, better known as chicken feet. They are deep fried, boiled, marinated in a black bean sauce and then steamed. For whatever reason they always end up bright red, perhaps adding to the whole "phoenix" idea. Personally I find the feet kind of fatty, but the flavor is nice and I love getting something my dining companions might find a bit on the wild side.

Part of the fun with Dim Sum is that you never know what the servers will bring out next. I've tried new things almost every time I've come here, and since many of the servers don't speak any English, sometimes you really don't know what you get until you take a bite. One dish I had never seen before was essentially a fried dough wrapped in a slimy noodle with cilantro and then squirted with a tangy soy-based sauce. It was very interesting, but the fried dough was a bit much for me so I can't say I'll be getting it again. I'm a sucker for slimy noodles as well as cilantro, however, so I had no problem eating my fair share. Another new thing was a a smattering of shrimp and some other seafood with green onions all-wrapped in a somewhat eggy covering. I thought it was great and would definitely get some again. There was only one part of our meal that neither or us really enjoyed, and that was the steamed meatballs, finely ground beef is shaped into balls and served on top of a thin bean-curd skin. Neither the texture nor the taste were really to our liking. I thought the meat tasted a little like head-cheese, as if it were mixed with some kind of a gelatin, and the texture was just overly smooth and slimy, but not in a good way considering it was meat.

Two of my favorite dim sum dishes I unfortunately did not get to eat today, the first being rice noodle rolls filled with either shrimp of barbecued pork and doused in a sweet soy sauce. Another thing which I did see today but was just too full for was the jim deui, a chewy dough filled with red bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds, and deep fried. But like I said, every dim sum venture is a unique experience, and you never know what you're gonna get!

At the end of your meal simply flag down one of the servers not pushing carts and he or she will tally up your total. I almost always end my meal pleasantly surprised at what a great deal of food I got for so little cost.

Empire Garden on Urbanspoon


  1. Have you been to China Pearl? If so is this better?

  2. We just went to China Pearl yesterday, and I liked it very much.

  3. Empire Garden Dim Sum is our family Thanksgiving "tradition," 10 years running. I don't know whether China Pearl or Emp Grdn has the best dim sum (seems like a draw to me), but the theater, in both senses, of Empire Garden makes it the perfect holiday choice. Christmas is good there, too!